Art therapy with sexual abuse survivors
Dee Spring's forward
Art expression articulates the layered communication about forgotten or remembered events. Past experience, associated feelings, and references cannot be eliminated from artwork created in the present. Impressions build one upon the other and are influenced by their predecessor. Art reflects and incorporates past experience, its impact on current emotional reactions, and subsequent behavior. The feelings bonded to those events serve as reflectors through form as content. The communication of image in art expression is a silent visual language, translated into linguist form and through retrocognition, examination, and experiencing the art object. Art making functions as a sender, the image as a message, the art maker as a receiver. Images in art expression, like dreams, are rooted in personal history, incorporate current events, and in some form, express a wish for the future.
I call this the image triad. Images may remain internal, or be projected onto a tangible surface in the form of artistic expression. Since images are reflections of a field of view, they provide a schema or likeness that is within the constructs of the individual. As images build one upon the other, they arouse associations. The use of art expression in a directed and sequential manner prompts the emergence of historic information that has been storied in various caches of the mind.
Hidden images and responses so traumatic events tend to surface in a safe environment. The images ordinate during the traumatic experience, then stored in what we call the “unconscious” until the patient has decided that the original threat is no longer valid. First, the victim-artist must learn what has happened in the past. Next, the experience must be revisited in all its aspects: mental images, physical responses (body memory), associated emotions, and references. Then, the historic experience must be reflected upon in a cognitive manner and processed from the adult point of view to form, a new perspective. The final step involves the resolution of personal truth, the acceptance that the past cannot be changed, and that there is a grieving for what is perceived as lost. These steps lead to trauma synthesis and to the time when it no longer hurts to remember.
During the process of trauma synthesis, distortion (visual or verbal) may occur. The content of the remembrance is represented by symbolic form which prompts other associations, references, metaphors, or parables. As more information is gained, details of the historic experience may seem to change from the original story. Information may become more detailed as dissociated material is retrieved and processed. Regardless of the method of presentation, the reported scenes represent individual stories, including distortions, similar to the way history came down through the generations before there was written word. Pictorial form seems to be the most efficient and succinct method to communicate complex issues. Particular feelings may be attached to the images (dissociated materials in symbolic form). The reactions to the image are symptoms which emerge from dissociated material, commonly referred to as posttraumatic stress. It is important to identify the feeling and its connection to the image, as the image is the message.
During the course of therapy, the visual dialogue captures the missing pieces (images as messages) that are attached to art products created by victim-artists. Over time, the images go together in a composite (visual dialogue) that articulates past experience through recurring images, connecting history to current events. My empirical quantitative research (1975-1988) on sexual abuse, posttraumatic stress, and artistic symbolic language concluded that there are two primary, consistent forms incorporated in the artistic symbolic language used by victims of sexual trauma. These consistent forms are wedges (threat) and disembodied/highly stylized yes (guilt). These forms are the beginning of an alphabet that concretely differentiates traumatic and dissociate disorders from other disorders and experiences. This artistic language is also consistently created by individuals diagnosed with DID. Other populations do not consistently use these forms in their art products. In this book, Stephanie Brooke refers to the emergence of this artistic language, and her own viewing of victim artist’s art products which reveal symbolic forms.
Art Therapy With sexual Abuse Survivors seeks to examine the most basic art therapy approaches to treatment of traumatic conditions due to sexual exploitation or abuse. The book is not structured around new or specialized ideas for treatment. Rather, the focus is a commentary on a collection of publications of art therapist and others who have written on the subject. The book includes general reporting of material to various art therapy approaches and orientations. The theme throughout the book is on the importance of capturing iconographic material, through the use of art therapy, to assess and/or treat individuals who have experienced sexual abuse. I believe the collective content of the book to be especially important to art therapists who are just beginning to work with this victim population. The book provides a compendium and review of a number of historical and controversial areas that are important to art therapists and other disciplines.
Dee Spring, PhD, A.T.R.-BC, MFCC
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